First responders, from police officers to paramedics, are in a perennial race against time — missing a beat could cost a life.
Pulling someone out of the clutches of danger demands swiftness, collaboration and athleticism, all of which will be tested later in the month on a global stage, although the stakes will be much lower.
First responders from across the globe are set to face off in Winnipeg on July 28 in a competition involving more than 60 sporting events.
The World Police and Fire Games, a 10-day biennial competition, will host approximately 8,500 first responders from 70 countries who will participate in several sports, including archery, rugby and basketball.
Those athletes include more than 80 staffers from Calgary’s police force, fire rescue services and paramedic crews.
One of them is Sgt. Angie Tetley, who proudly declares rugby to be the best sport in the world. The toughness, the physicality of it, she said, is what draws her and drives her passion for the sport.
Tetley fell in love with rugby on her 21st birthday while backpacking in Switzerland.
“I saw this crazy sport on TV in a sports club and I was like, ‘What is that?’ ” she said. Later, after returning to Canada, while serving at a restaurant, rugby re-entered her life.
“This crazy bald guy with no teeth came into the restaurant and was just having lunch and was trying to recruit all the waitresses to play rugby,” Tetley said with a laugh. But she learned more about the man after her shift had ended.
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“I had to take his phone number out of the garbage,” she said. “And then I pretty much harassed him for the next few months until the rugby season started.”
Fast forward more than two decades: Tetley and rugby are inseparable. She has enrolled her children in the sport and coaches a girls’ team.
Tetley said she first learned about the World Police and Fire Games in 2009, more than five years into her role with the Calgary Police Service.
But when she contacted the federation organizing the event, she found women had to play alongside men.
“I’m all for girl power,” she said. “But I do not want to play rugby against a 280-pound New Zealand Maori man.”
To create a separate women’s division, the federation needed four teams.
So, Tetley took it upon herself to bring a women’s rugby division to life. She spent hours trying to recruit interested players in Canada.
After she had cobbled a couple of teams together, she began reaching out to rugby associations in foreign countries, including the U.S. and Australia, asking if they knew female athletes who were also first responders.
Following months of work, Tetley and a few others helped register four teams for the competition and, finally, in the 2011 Games held in New York, women had a separate rugby division.
Const. JJ Mulder is one of the first Canadians who played in the division.
“It was pretty awesome,” said Mulder, who will compete in this year’s rugby competition. Recalling their humble beginnings in 2011, Mulder said, “We had to move people around to try and make the round-robin work.” She continued, “Now, the division has seven teams.”
World Police and Fire Games provide relief from harsh realities of work
While the athletes are imbued with competitiveness, camaraderie among their colleagues makes these Games the most memorable, said Const. Jon Carsten, who will compete in flag football.
“I remember everything being so competitive but so friendly,” Carsten said. “When the game was on, everybody was trying their hardest, and then as soon as the game was finished, we would stop and spend time and talk with the athletes.”
Mulder adds that the Games are an escape from the harsh realities facing first responders. For her, it means a break from seeing children die, her colleagues get shot or people succumb to drug overdoses.
“It’s kind of brutal,” she said.
Mulder isn’t alone. Nearly nine out of 10 police officers in Canada suffer from moderate to severe depression, with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance and aggression, usually occurring within three months of being exposed to trauma, found a report by the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Sgt. Lee Stanton said the Games are also free from the political pressures that bog down police officers.
“Folks come back refreshed,” he told Postmedia.
But a challenge for every athlete is the costs of travelling and housing themselves during the competition. Mulder said expenses incurred on a trip can range between $3,000 and $5,000, which many find unaffordable.
When Janeen Norman, owner of meat store Alpine Sausage, learned about the financial struggles that come with participating in the event, she partnered with New Level Brewing to launch a fundraiser, selling boxes of barbecue meats and beer, and using the proceeds to help first responders pay for travel and accommodation.
“Their job is very taxing,” said Norman, who has also raised funds for several other causes, including addiction, mental health and the refugee crisis in Ukraine. “I think we’ve relied on our first responders very, very heavily in the last few years getting us through COVID-19 and the recovery.
“And I think this is a way for us to help pay them back.”